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"And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free." - John 8:32
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Author:  B. Cayenne Bird
Bio: B. Cayenne Bird
Date:  January 9, 2009
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Inmates Forced to Drink Poison Water, No Place to go for Help

I would like to share with you a letter sent to me by Daniel Zuma, a member of our UNION prison reform group with a graduate degree who gives us a first person, professionally qualified description of water at Duel Vocational Institute, a prison at Tracy, California and conditions he personally witnessed after he was terrorized by law enforcement. Here is Daniel's shocking account. He is now out of prison, but he told me that he will never get over how his own life was devastated by what he endured and witnessed there. It is a key to why nobody is getting out of prison as a better person, but are instead broken in mind, body and spirit. Here's the letter from a very courageous man whose government has destroyed him over a victimless "crime". After his letter, I discuss other instances of poison water in the state's prisons and call everyone to rally with us outside the San Francisco, California federal courthouse on February 4, 2009

He was harshly sentenced to three years on a first arrest for possesion of recreational drugs. A senior citizen who was harming no one, a well-educated, gentle person who worked for years helping people in state service, thrown into prison. Whom did this benefit? No wonder we have no state budget and so many people are walking around traumatized for life after a ridiculous prison sentence.

Begin Letter from Daniel Zuma

Dear Rev. Bird:

Nobody ever expects to go to prison, least of all someone who has never been in trouble before, and who has retired from a career in civil service. But, a friend of mine got caught for possession of drugs and they offered him his freedom in exchange for mine. The government broke down my front door, destroyed my faith in humanity, ruined me financially, and sentenced me to 3 years in prison for drug possession.

Prison did nothing about my drug use except to traumatize me to an extent that I would only be more likely to use them in the future (drug use is one of the defining criteria of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). Prison also ruined my physical health, leaving me bitter and in chronic physical pain. To my surprise, the vast majority of the people I met in prison were there for non-violent offenses--mostly for drug possession, or for technical violations of their conditions of parole--things like "failure to follow directions," failing to keep an appointment, or turning in a dirty drug or alcohol test; i.e., things that are not even crimes. Many were over 50 years old, like myself.

I was at Deuel Vocational Institute in Tracy CA, where the water runs gray and sometimes brown from the tap. It tastes of industrial chemicals and fermented cow urine, since a dairy sits atop the shallow aquifer from which the prison draws 620,000 gallons per day. Itīs disgusting even in the best of times; the staff wonīt drink it; there are signs warning visitors not to drink it; and trying to wash anything white only makes them dirtier. In mid-May of 2006, Plant Ops did some routine maintenance changing over the pipes bringing water into the prison. They turned the water off to the entire prison for about 18 hours, and when they turned it back on, the water ran black and thick as paint for nearly a day, after which it gradually went back to its usual gray. The staff brought trash cans full of potable water into the large dorms, and gave the prisoners buckets to help flush the toilets.

The roughly 3,900 prisoners confined two to a cell were completely without water; 379 prisoners and eight staff members were seriously sickened by some sort of diarrheal disease, variously identified as the Norovirus, Campylobacter and, according to one Doctor I spoke to, "a mixture of fecal bacteria" that were never conclusively identified. DVI is a reception center--a feeder prison--which sends about 750 inmates per week to Mule Creek, Wasco, Folsom and elsewhere in the Central Valley. It is, therefore, the first stop for any epidemic entering the prison system. Between May 16 and May 23, 2006, 1,344 inmates and 14 correctional staffers at 10 prisons came down with the disease.

From the 1950s to the 1980s, DVI was used as a firefighter training facility. Chemicals would be ignited in an open pit and extinguished by firefighting personnel. Consequently, there are now high concentrations of Volatile Organic Compounds, such as PCE, TCE, and DCE in the groundwater. The prison dairy contributes significant amounts of nitrates and fecal bacteria, which leach into the water table only 12 feet below. Instead of filtration, the prison relies on high levels of chlorination to suppress fecal contamination, so there are high levels of chlorides (i.e., the "C" in PCE, TCE and DCE) in the water.

In addition to manganese and iron, the water at DVI has a very high salt content due to itīs proximity to San Francisco Bay. So, the water is very "filling," but it doesn't quench your thirst. During intestinal disease outbreaks and in hot weather, it is very difficult to stay hydrated or to flush the accumulated toxins from your body. (This is a particular danger for the elderly, or the many inmates who are on psychotropic medications due to mental health problems.)

After three months of drinking the DVI water I developed a rash over 80% of my body, which was so itchy I would scratch myself bloody in my sleep. It also affected my joints and my vision, and only cleared up when I was able to obtain bottled water.

I went to Mainline Medical to try to get a prescription or a medical "Chrono" for bottled water, or else a transfer to another institution with clean water. I was told by Dr. Fox, the Chief of the Medical Staff, that they didn't have the power to grant either request, and besides, I couldn't prove medically that it was the water (even though my rash would come back when I started drinking the water again). I was advised to file a Medical 602 , an Inmate Appeal which, in keeping with the normal standard of incompetence in these matters, was routed to the prisonīs Chief Engineer as a "quality of life" issue, who denied it on the grounds that there was nothing he could do about the water.

Unlike many inmates I was fortunate enough to have family who could send me my own money from the outside, and I was able to purchase 2-liter bottles for 90 cents each once a month at the prison canteen. But then CDC suddenly canceled these from the canteen inventory in favor of 20 oz bottles at triple the price. I filed an Appeal on the price increase, citing my own health reasons and the fact that clean water is a necessity of life and health. After nearly a year of working my way through the various levels of appeal, it was finally turned down at the highest level by CDC in Sacramento.

They said that the decision to raise the price on water was made at the state level by a committee and, having been made, it cannot be unmade just for me. Apparently, allowing all prisoners access to clean water--even at their own expense--was not deemed sufficiently reasonable to revisit the committeeīs decision. I know from my own years of experience in state government that there is no impediment to modifying a contract of this sort. They simply did not consider the health of inmates worth the effort.

In the meantime, I began documenting cases of others who had filed grievances at DVI and found a consistent pattern of obstruction and delay--and, when appeals were granted, the outcomes were deliberately calculated to make the situation worse, so as to convince the inmates of the futility of trying to change the system by working within it. All of the organizational self-correcting mechanisms have been disconnected in CDC--there is no meaningful press access; no outside audits; no inmate self-governance; no checks and balances; no whistle blower protection; chaplains can be fired for disclosing substandard conditions; and a recent federal case brought by an inmate at Pelican Bay regarding the serving of hot meals has shown that even the federal courts cannot force CDC to follow its own rules--should a prisoner survive the year-long gauntlet of delay and reprisals that pervades the Inmate Appeals Process.

What I didnīt know at the time is that polluted drinking water had been known about for decades at DVI and elsewhere, but it has been largely ignored as overcrowded prisons overtax the aquifers from which they draw their water. Nitrate contamination due to fertilizers is especially common in rural areas, such as the Salinas Valley State Prison near Monterey; the California Institution for Men (CIM) in Chino; at the California Menīs Colony (CMC) in San Luis Obispo; and the nearby California Institution for Women (CIW). Mule Creek State Prisonīs water is contaminated with dry cleaning chemicals; Old Folsomīs water is contaminated by toxic waste from the old scrap metal, drum storage, industrial manufacturing areas, and a firing range. At Kern Valley State Prison, there are high levels of arsenic in the water. Alkalinity, asbestos and fecal contamination are issues at Avenal. Inmates have also been sickened by the water at the Sierra Conservation Center in Jamestown, and by outbreaks of Helicobacter pylori (a bacterium that causes peptic ulcers) at the California Rehabilitation Center in Norco.

If there is any pollution in the local water table, it tends to get sucked into the prison because of the rates of pumping have to keep up with overcrowding. To make matters worse, prisons only concentrate these pollutants further, and they discharge them back into the host communities, who are forced to subsidize the cost of treating the excess sewage. Between 2000 and 2006, eight of California's 33 state prisons have been cited for major water pollution problems. Folsom State Prison, for example, was fined $700,000 in 2000 for a massive 700,000 gallon sewage spill into the adjacent American River.

When living without air conditioning, water becomes a life or death matter. The summer I was at DVI, several people collapsed from the heat; three others died at Vacaville, a prison not far away. There is absolutely no excuse for not having reverse osmosis units attached to the drinking fountains in the dorms and cell blocks. It isnīt done because no one in authority thinks that the prisoners need or deserve unpolluted water. There is no public outcry, therefore no reason to care.

In one 214-person minimum security ranch dorm where I was housed, two people died in the space of 6 months because the guards simply would not call the paramedics even though it was obvious that one man was having a stroke, and the other had fallen out of his bunk and was unconscious. Instead, the guards called for a pickup truck to take them to Mainline Medical, which took 45 minutes to arrive. They had to drag the poor men out on a blanket because they had no stretcher or any emergency equipment that paramedics would have normally brought. The prisoners died in Mainline Medical, and their families were told it was due to "natural causes." It was, however, simply cold, callous neglect.

Daniel Zuma

DVI Y Dorm

This is Y-Dorm at DVI. I lived in Z-Dorm which is on the other side of the back wall partition. It is twice the size but there are only 14 working toilets for 300 people. Prisoners are issued one eating utensil and one cup, but there are only two sinks (adjacent to the toilets), and no hot water or dish soap. Notice the lack of places to sit and write letters. Prisoners have to sit crouched or lay or their bunks upwards of 20 hours per day, causing all sorts of back and neck problems. There is no air-conditioning or ice here, and temperatures regularly climb into the 100s in the summer.

click here for rest of this article, for source links, photographs. Article picks up beneath the picture of the DVI dorm

B. Cayenne Bird

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Notes:  The families of people who have died in California's prisons, about 450 per year, invite everyone to attend the closing arguments of the Plata hearing and rally with them outside the Federal Courthouse at 450 Golden Gate Ave., San Francisco, on February 4, 2009

Biography - B. Cayenne Bird

B. Cayenne Bird is a 45-year veteran op-ed journalist and publisher. A descendant of Mary Todd Lincoln, and General Andrew Porter, she is passionate about human rights and criminal justice issues. A mother and grandmother with advanced degrees in Journalism, Liberal Studies, and Humanities (Cultural Anthropology) she has focused on prison reform making great strides in Calif. supporting the landmark Plata-Coleman case for a decade which resulted in major prison reform. She writes scholarly articles too but prefers op-eds.

Read other commentaries by B. Cayenne Bird.

Visit B. Cayenne Bird's website at Columnist

Copyright Đ 2009 by B. Cayenne Bird
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